Joao Cancelo in top 10 most expensive loan players in football history

Ian Watson
Guardiola bust-up with Cancelo

Joao Felix’s move to Chelsea makes the Portugal star the second-most expensive signing ever to be sent out on loan by short-changed clubs.

Here are the top 15 priciest players for whom their next move was a temporary one…


15) Luka Jovic (£52.4m)
Eintracht Frankfurt have done extremely well out of Jovic. They initially borrowed the centre-forward from Benfica in 2017 for two seasons, in which time he scored 25 Bundesliga goals. So Frankfurt paid the necessary £5million or so to make his move a permanent one – then almost immediately sold him on to Real Madrid for 10 times that figure.

Jovic flopped hard in Spain. He scored two La Liga goals before Real gave up on him and returned him to Frankfurt midway through 2020/21. The Serbian scored three in his first 76 minutes back on the pitch for the Germans but only one more followed thereafter. Real kept him around last season, but only bothered to start him once in La Liga.

Recognising they were throwing good money after bad, Real cut ties with Jovic last summer when he joined Fiorentina, where he’s scored just three Serie A goals.


14) Tanguy Ndombele (£53.8m)
It was a similar story for Ndombele. He starred for Lyon, got a huge move, flopped and then returned to his old club.

For Spurs, the France midfielder was their biggest splurge in the transfer market when he arrived in 2019. Mauricio Pochettino, Jose Mourinho, Ryan Mason, Nuno and Antonio Conte all tried to tease some consistency from Ndombele but all failed.

Conte sent Ndombele back to Lyon for the second half of last season, but even being back in France didn’t inspire the midfielder; Lyon chose not to extend the loan so Spurs lent him to Napoli instead.

Napoli have been pretty chuffed with the midfielder; so much so, they fancy making it a permanent arrangement. But they still want a discount on the £25million option they have to get the deal done.


13) Miralem Pjanic (£54.8m)
Pjanic’s switch to Barcelona in 2020 was one of the more peculiar deals of recent years. The midfielder moved from Juventus for €60m, at roughly the same time Arthur went the other way for €72m. Those figures seem steep, right?

It was a swap in which the fees exist in isolation from each other, part of a plan concocted between the two clubs to help them creep towards a profit on the balance sheet. Barca needed to find €60million before July 1 and Pjanic moved for that exact figure two days before.

Pjanic never got close to justifying that ridiculous valuation but that was never the aim. The Bosnian played 19 La Liga games in his only season at the Nou Camp before being packed off to Besiktas on loan. Upon returning to the Nou Camp, he was allowed to leave once more, this time permanently, for Sharjah FC in UAE.


12) Zlatan Ibrahimovic (£57m)

“When you buy me, you are buying a Ferrari. If you drive a Ferrari, you put premium petrol in the tank, you hit the motorway and you step on the gas. Guardiola filled up with diesel and took a spin in the countryside.”

And to continue the laborious metaphor, Pep Guardiola then loaned the rather expensive Zlatan-mobile to a mate. Ibrahimovic’s move to Barcelona never sat quite right for any of the parties involved, particularly not when the Spanish side paid Inter Milan £40m and sent Samuel Eto’o the other way as part of the deal. As if that was not enough, Inter would dump Barcelona out of the Champions League in the semi-final that season, before going on to lift the trophy themselves.

Ibrahimovic, to his credit, hardly floundered in Spain. He scored 16 goals in 29 La Liga appearances, winning five trophies in 46 games before leaving after just one season. Italy would soon come calling again, with Inter’s bitter city rivals Milan offering him a loan lifeline. He’s back there once more after bossing it at PSG, Man Utd and LA Galaxy.


11) Alvaro Morata (£58m)
The Spain striker was very much Chelsea’s second choice in the summer of 2017, when Conte really wanted Romelu Lukaku to replace Diego Costa, but the Everton striker went to Manchester United instead. Morata never really offered the impression that he belonged at Chelsea, nor did he give the Blues much reason to make him feel as such.

The former Real Madrid and Juventus striker started well, netting six in six before the goals dried up. He managed just four more before the end of 2017 and only one in the new year.

Morata became more renowned for the chances he missed than those he put away. And his demeanour, like that of a repeatedly slapped arse, contrasted sharply with Costa’s no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners approach to goalscoring. When the chance came to return to Madrid with Atletico, initially on an 18-month loan, Morata jumped at the opportunity. And when Atletico suggested they might give Chelsea their money back, the Blues wasted no time agreeing to the deal either.

Then Atletico shipped him off to Juve. Then he went back to Atletico. Now he might be off again.


10) Joao Cancelo (£60m)
In the PFA team of the Year for 2021/22 as Manchester City won the Premier League title.

Shipped off to Bayern Munich on loan in January 2023 after a reported bust-up with Pep Guardiola.


8) James Rodriguez (£63m)
Gareth Bale. Cristiano Ronaldo. Luis Suarez. There concludes the comprehensive list of players who were more expensive than James Rodriguez upon his arrival at Real Madrid in the summer of 2014. The Colombian had shone at the World Cup; his reward was status as a Galactico.

Around two dozen players have since joined the above list, but Rodriguez remains damn expensive. Which made his two-year loan move to Bayern Munich with the option to buy seem a little weird.

When the time came in 2019 for Bayern to sh*t or get off the pot, the Bundesliga side pulled up their trousers and moved on. After making just eight La Liga appearances back in Madrid, he decided to team up once again with Carlo Ancelotti in the rather unlikelier surrounds of Goodison Park. After a good start, he faded badly and headed off to Qatar. He lasted almost a year there before joining Olympiacos on a free.


8) Arthur (£68.3m)
Arthur’s switch to Juventus in 2020 was one of the more peculiar deals of recent years. The midfielder moved from Barcelona for €72m, at roughly the same time Miralem Pjanic went the other way for €62m. Those figures seem steep, right?

It was a swap in which the fees exist in isolation from each other, part of a plan concocted between the two clubs to help them creep towards a profit on the balance sheet.

Nobody was surprised when Arthur made just 24 league starts over two seasons for Juventus before being made available for loan to a panicking Liverpool, where injury has made him really quite easy to ignore and forget.


7) Nicolas Pepe (£72m)
Arsenal overpaid for Pepe. The fact the Gunners felt it necessary to hold an internal investigation over the deal is acknowledgement of that. But Napoli wanted to pay more.

Apparently, the Italian side were willing to go as high as £85million, including some add-ons, to sign the Ivorian from Lille. But because Arsenal were on good terms with the French club’s owner, and the player wanted to move to north London rather than Naples, saw to it that Pepe and the Gunners got their way.

They probably wish they hadn’t. Pepe showed the odd glimpse of the form that made him such a hot property in France but Mikel Arteta, after replacing Unai Emery, came to rely on him less and less.

So off he went to Nice last summer, since when he’s scored six and offered a single assist in 21 games in all competitions. He’ll return to the Emirates in the summer – probably – with a year remaining on his original five-year deal.


6) Gonzalo Higuain (£75.3m)
Higuain became the third most expensive player of all time in 2016 when Juventus forked out the £75.3million required to buy him out of his Napoli contract. Few doubted it was a savvy move. The season before, Higuain notched 36 league goals in 35 games for Napoli.

Two years and 55 goals in 105 games for Juventus later, the then 30-year-old was deemed surplus to requirements. Harsh, perhaps. But that’s what happens when Cristiano Ronaldo rocks up to take your place.

Chelsea were heavily linked with a permanent move for Higuain but the ex-Real Madrid striker opted to stay in Italy with AC Milan on a try-before-you-buy deal. He tried; they didn’t buy. Instead, his loan to Milan was cut short and Higuain was dispatched to Chelsea mid-season on a similar deal with a similar outcome.

Having scored eight goals in 32 games back at Juventus in 2019/20, both parties agreed it was best to just knock it on the head. Then he went to play for Pip Neville at Inter Miami before deciding it was time to pack it in.


5) Gareth Bale (£85m)
Spurs sold Elvis and bought the Bootleg Beatles in 2013, bringing in seven players with the world record £85m Real Madrid chucked their way for a player who had just proved himself the best in the Premier League with an astonishing season.

Seven years later, Elvis was back in the building on a season-long loan after a nightmare seven years in Madrid where he has scored only 105 goals and won just five Champions League titles. More damning still, Bale scored crucial goals in only two of those five Champions League finals he won, and in only one of them did he produce one of the greatest goals ever scored in a major final. It is, frankly, piss poor.

With injuries and ennui blighting his last years in Spain, Bale devoted his energies to golf and not socialising with his team-mates before deciding to cheer himself up a bit by popping back to England to play at Jose Mourinho’s Joy Factory at Spurs.

When his Real deal finally expired, he nipped off to LAFC to keep himself fit for Wales’ World Cup campaign. With that in the rear-view mirror, Bale saw little point returning to MLS and jacked it all in.


4) Romelu Lukaku (£97.5m)
Inter have pulled Chelsea’s pants down here…

The Italians signed Lukaku for around £73million, which seemed awfully steep at a time he’d floundered badly at Manchester United. At Inter, Lukaku showed all the qualities his supporters know him to possess, bagging 47 goals in two seasons and winning Serie A in 2021.

Inter than made a profit of almost £25million by selling him to Chelsea, where Lukaku flopped even harder than he did at Old Trafford. By the end of the season, Thomas Tuchel could barely hide his disdain for the Belgian.

Inter were happy to take him back but they pleaded poverty. It worked. They borrowed Lukaku for a year for around £7million before returning him next summer as soon as he turns 30.


3) Antoine Griezmann (£107m)
After the stick Griezmann received for ‘The Decision’, you’d think the France star might have had a word with Paul Pogba to warn his mate about making The Pogmentary. Apparently not.

Griezmann used his TV show to tell the world whether he would sign a new contract at Atletico or accept a huge offer from Barcelona. He stayed. For a year.

Twelve months after ‘The Decision’, he made another: to belatedly move to the Nou Camp. It went as well as his TV production. Two years and 22 goals later, Griezmann was being returned to Atletico on loan so Barca could shift at least some of his wages off their books.

As ever with Atletico and Barca, it wasn’t simple. Griezmann became a super-sub, rarely playing more than 30 minutes a game, owing to clauses in the deal, which was finally straightened out when Atletico paid Barca £20million to re-sign the attacker permanently.

A euro for Barca’s thoughts while Griezmann made the World Cup his playground in Qatar.


2) Joao Felix (£113m)
Only Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele had moved for more money when Atletico forked out a sodding fortune to bring Felix from Benfica in 2019, when he was the world’s most expensive teenager behind Mbappe.

Halfway through his seven-year contract, having shown glimpses of the potential that tempted Atletico to break their transfer record, Felix finds himself out of the picture in Madrid. Had Diego Simeone sussed as much back in the summer, they might have got something close to their money back from Manchester United.

Now, belatedly from Ateltico’s accountant’s perspective, Felix is on the move, with Chelsea scooping him up, supposedly from under the noses of United and Arsenal. We’re not convinced the Portugal attacker is quite what any of them need right now, and Chelsea have form for this kind of panicked January loan deal; Alexandre Pato and Gonzalo Higuain come to mind.

That said, now watch him win the Ballon d’Or in blue.


1) Philippe Coutinho (£142m)
‘He has played a total of 75 games as a blaugrana in which he has scored 21 goals and provided 11 assists,’ read the Barcelona statement announcing Coutinho’s year-long loan to Bayern Munich, thanking him for his ‘commitment and dedication’. That doesn’t really tell the whole story, does it?

Coutinho’s dream move to Barca quickly became a nightmare. The £142m price tag and the burden of expectation that came with being Neymar’s replacement proved too heavy for the Brazilian to bear.

The highlight of his Bayern career, and a perfect summary of the clusterf*ck that his Barca move has become, came when he scored the last two goals of an 8-2 spanking of his former club en route to Champions League glory.

Despite Barca’s best efforts to get rid, Coutinho stayed and played a dozen games last season and the same number last season before joining Aston Villa on loan. After a positive half-season, Villa slammed £17million on a table at the Nou Camp and told Barca to take it or leave it. They took it. But even that looks pricey at the moment.

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